Ruth: Redemption Hope

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Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger
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Introduction: Basis, Task, and Method

In the modern field of Biblical Theology there are, from a purely utilitarian standpoint, several options available to a person who is preparing to treat a text, whether it is a brief pericope, or as in the case of this assignment, a whole book. We begin this essay on the theology of Ruth with a methodological introduction. There are various perspectives on doing biblical theology. Gerhard Hasel’s book on Old Testament Biblical Theology (1) contains useful summary descriptions of a number of modern currents in this field discussed side by side. For convenience, then, the descriptive categories herein make use of his language.

The basis of Old Testament Biblical Theology is the belief that at least part of the process of biblical studies is the act of letting the Bible “speak for itself.” The Bible not only teaches things about God, which are deducible from its contents, based on this or that organizational/classificational scheme. But also, Scripture contains within itself its own organizational/classificational scheme. The great goal of doing biblical theology is to gain a better understanding of the Bible from within--to have one’s understanding actuated by a reflexive biblical mind. There are complicating factors, however, which need to be acknowledged.

The book of Ruth is one of thirty-nine separate books within the Old Testament. The author of the book is writing and adding to written revelation which began probably five hundred years or so before. The author had an individual purpose and design within the greater context of the whole. Moreover, the “whole” was that body of Scripture that was complete up to the time this author began, and was complete again once Ruth was inspired. The import of this realization is that, as an individual product, the book of Ruth makes a unique contribution to the theology of the Old Testament. The stage of completeness of the Scripture before Ruth is not less authoritative than that which comes after Ruth has been added. Consider this analogy: a family of three persons is not incomplete when there is no fourth person; but when baby arrives, the family unit is “completed” with four, nothing less will do.

In the same way, with revelation, that which comes after defines a new compendium of revelation with modified emphases--modified in the sense that whatever has been added has brought in new emphases and selectively strengthened others (and comparatively reduced still others). We are not saying there are unimportant emphases in Scripture--only a rational realization that in the progressive nature of revelation and redemption there are degrees of emphasis. The need to study and analyze theses emphases is the basis for Old Testament Biblical Theology.

While there may be a vague agreement between different schools of biblical theology on the basis of the discipline, there is no consensus opinion beyond that point on anything whatever to do with the task and method of biblical theology. For example, some scholars debate the dating of the book of Ruth. Some believe it to have been written very near the accession of king David. Others believe it to be of very late composition, even post-exilic. The further away from David’s reign the date for producing the book is assigned, the more varied become the conjectures over the purpose and meaning of the book. The reason for these conjectures is that the book contains very clear references to the lineage of David and purports to describe how his great-grandmother Ruth, the Moabitess, came into the covenant community of Israel. Questions concerning the text properly belong to the field of Introduction, but they cannot help but bear on the issue of Theology as well. The historical-critical school seeks to theologize the various parts of the book as products of different times, different authors, and therefore, different purposes. The effort may be fairly described as an attempt to explain what the writer(s) believed about God or religion when they wrote. This is contrasted to ideas about God or religion at other times and places. The underlying belief of this approach, and others like it is in Subjective religion objectively considered.

The big difference between that task and the task of biblical theology as undertaken in this essay is founded on the “face-value” acceptation of the text as-is, and the a priori belief of its factual quality. (This second aspect also distinguishes this approach from the canonical school approach.) The task of biblical theology for the believer is not to try to understand what the author believed about God or religion, but rather to see in this book what God was revealing about himself, and how that built upon and added to his previous revelation. Basic to this task is the belief that what we believe today about God or his religion is not fundamentally different from what the people of God have always believed about God and his religion. This does not mean that we do not admit of variations in the form that out religion has taken over time, but only that those differences are incidental to the unity of biblical religion. We believe in the Objectivity of one Faith, which is subjectively apprehended. We might hold to various doctrines of our faith properly or improperly from the standpoint of human fallibility, but we are relating ourselves directly to this God and this religion as things independent of us and real.

It is precisely this reversal of the objective and subjective elements of the study of the biblical text which leads to the divergent conclusion of the task--the question of value. Is this study of Ruth, for example, designed to derive some aspect of emphasis of the theology embedded in Ruth that has normative value for today? If there is continuity, and we believe there is, then the answer is Yes. The other approaches, in their futile attempt to be objective, aim at description. The description is, by its nature, limited in some degree by the transmission medium and represents a ‘gleaning’ of material from a selected passage. Then this raw material is threshed on the threshing floor of meaning, where the difference between what the text meant and what it means is beaten out--some would say, beaten to death.

Finally, a word on methodology. Something of methodology has come out of the discussion of basis and task. Some prefer to do their biblical theology using the same categories they begin with in systematics. We agree with Hasel that this method, while it may be a useful approach to Scripture, is not doing justice to the basis of biblical theology, which is to let the text “speak for itself” as far as possible. What Hasel describes as the “cross sectional” method (2) has definite value in developing themes which come through strongly in much of the Bible as dominant themes. But in a book like Ruth, considered by itself, there is not much internal material to organize it along the lines of, say, the covenant. Understanding the covenant as background to the book is valuable, and here we stand at an advantage (we say) to the revisionists who disrupt the natural order of the books. They would virtually deny any coherent background to the books. At best, similar topics could be addressed in various corpus, but any true sense of relation and connectivity is gone.

Ruth is one story. Even the critics have a hard time denying that. There aren’t any layers of tradition laid down on top of one another obscuring the original meaning. Other such conjectures are equally difficult and implausible. If the last few verses of genealogy are fake (or a later tradition) then critics must capitulate on a relatively early date. If they belong, then they must admit a legend of king David’s ancestry containing some of the most unlikely material ever considered canonical.

What shall we look for then? Is there a “center” which we can focus on? Yes, but it is not a center can be spelled out in the text of Ruth; it is a biblical center, Jesus Christ. We affirm that He is the embodiment of the relation between that testaments on the basis of his own testimony, “You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that bear witness of Me” (John 5:39). And since, on the basis of Luke 24:27, we ought to search for the indicators of the mission and message of Christ in the Old Testament, we hope to find in Ruth themes that point in the direction of New Testament completion. This we do after we have assessed Ruth in the light of her place in the stream of God’s revelation and dealing with his people. Scripture is a tapestry on a single grand theme, comprised of countless threads, rich in-depth, embroidery, vibrancy. Let us take a closer look at the weave by turning to Ruth.

The Theological Themes of Ruth

The author of Ruth had some specific goals in mind when he wrote this story. Chief among them was to establish, and perhaps to vindicate, the genealogy of David (Ruth 4:17-21). (3) In the books of Samuel, no pedigree is included for David; only his father is named. This lack could have provided the rationale for including this story in the Bible, but it could just as likely have been seen by that author as superfluous because Ruth was already written. Whenever it was written, the book lays down the ancestry of the kingly line of Israel, and sketches it back to Perez, son of Judah. The line of Judah, according to Jacob (Gen. 49:10) was the one from whom the rightful kings of Israel would come, “until Shiloh comes,” until the Messiah arrived.

In order to show that this prophecy was valid, the author is pleased to describe, in these events, the shepherding hand of an almighty, sovereign God, guiding people and events to accomplish his purposes. (4) This stands out in sharp relief against the backdrop of Judges, the previous book, which documents Israel’s slow disintegrating spiral into sin, depravity, civil war, and subjugation, after the glorious conquest of the land under Joshua. God’s ways are inscrutable; they are usually hidden from view, and we must learn to “walk by faith, and not by sight.” Naomi, in particular, must learn to trust that God is not a ruthless judge (Ruth 1:13, 20-21). He is, indeed, looking out for His interests, and He is consequently looking after His elect people, who are His primary interest.

Who are God’s elect? Who are included in God’s people? Who are excluded? The second great subsidiary theme is that God honors righteousness, and he accepts and cherishes that given him even by an outsider, a Gentile. Ruth is rewarded with the richness of God’s blessings, because, from the outset, she is willing to love God and his people for nothing more than the joy of knowing she forsook death for life (Ruth 1:16-17). It is a simple fact of history that members of the covenant so near to it from the beginning usually have a proportionally contracted faith. It is the ones who come from afar, who see with such starkness the gulf that once separated them from God, the people of God, and the blessings of the covenant, now safely behind them, who appreciate most dearly Him, “under whose wings you have come for refuge” (Ruth 2:12).

The theme of refuge is the obverse of the most prominent theme in Ruth, that of deliverance in the form of redemption. (5) It is this theme around which the plot of the story turns. Taking refuge is the act of one in need of help. Redemption is the act of one who aids the helpless. Boaz was a near-relation, one who had the right and responsibility to exercise the cultural and legal function of “kinsman redeemer”. The redeemer was a relative, motivated by duty or affection who would “buy back” a relative from slavery (Lev. 25:40ff) or his property inheritance (Lev. 25:22ff) which he had been force to sell for debts. More important to the story of Ruth, the levirate marriage law was seen as part of the redemption code. (6) The brother of a dead man (or, as in this case, a near-relative) was duty bound (Deut. 25:5ff), though not legally bound, to marry his brother’s childless wife and raise up an inheritance in his brother’s name by the firstborn son of that union. Boaz acts on this duty after another man, a closer relative, balks. Boaz’ act is not an act of mere duty or one of studied calculation. He is removed from even an implied responsibility by the existence of the other kinsman. But because of the character of Ruth, and her demonstrated covenant fidelity, and because of his own covenant commitment to Jehovah and the law, he gladly consents.

It should be pointed out that this is not a “love-story”, certainly not in the modern, western conception. There is deep love in this story, obviously demonstrated between Ruth and Naomi. But this story is manifestly not about a love affair, or about a sexual attraction across forbidden national or ethnic lines. Some have suggested that Ruth was written as a popular protest (or must have been a popular read) in the days of Ezra and his enforcement of divorce between Israelite men and their heathen wives. This idea is rooted in the belief that the Writings portion of the Old Testament were the final segment of the Hebrew Scripture that was canonized. The texts, then say they, can hardly be older than the exile. But surely this is a reading into the text and ignoring what is really there for the sake of a pet idea. Suggesting that some rebelliously motivated popular literature was gradually accepted as divine revelation, and as foundational to religion, shows either senselessness of the whole tenor of biblical religion, or profound naiveté. It can be said, happily, that love between husband and wife is implicit in the final verses which indicate the birth of Obed to Ruth and Boaz, and the general joy in Bethlehem over the event.

If the love of Song of Solomon is not present, another love-theme emerges. This is “covenant love”. Naomi pronounces it as a benediction, “The Lord deal kindly with you” (Ruth 1:8), in trying to send her daughters-in-law away. Ruth demonstrates that she is a true beneficiary of that covenant love by embracing Naomi and Jehovah God, and refuses to turn back. Naomi repeats the blessing with a spirit of keener faith (Ruth 2:20) when she begins to realize that her God has not “sent his hand against” (Ruth 1:13) nor “forsaken His kindness,” His covenant love from the two of them. Finally, Boaz uses the same language in describing that godly imitation on Ruth’s part of demonstrating tender affection toward Naomi (Ruth 3:10). (7) Truly we prove God’s covenant love shed abroad in our hearts when we “love one another.”

In seeing this love born of faith, one is drawn deeper into the story to see what that faith is. In each of the three main actors, we see a different aspect of faith. Ruth exemplifies simple, childlike faith in Jehovah God. She chooses Him over Moab’s idols Ruth 1:16). She chooses outcast status, stranger status as a widowed, female, foreigner in Israel (Ruth 1:9, 11, 16-17; cf. Deut. 23:3). Her faith is recognized in action by Boaz who commends her faithfulness to Naomi and recognizes her adopted faith in Jehovah (Ruth 2:11-12). She puts her faith in the revealed law of God for the solutions to her and Naomi’s penurious straits--gleaning (Ruth 2:2; cf. Lev. 19:9-10) and redeeming (Ruth 3:8). She says to Boaz, “Indeed, I have come thither for refuge ‘neath the wings of Jehovah; now, my lord, spread your wing over me.”

Naomi, on the other hand, exemplifies a faith weakened and blasted by hardship. She obediently follows her husband, like a Sarah, but she is taken on a spiritual meander outside the land of promise to Moab. She buries her husband. Her sons marry foreign women, and they also die. These events seem to waste a precious decade of Naomi’s life. “I went away full, and the Lord has brought me home again empty” (Ruth 1:21). She self-pityingly renames herself Mara, like the bitter springs in the Israelite wandering, because, she complains, “The Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me” (Ruth 1:20). Yet she forgets that God made those waters sweet. Our afflictions are light and momentary, and usually less than that. Still, she is not so dull she cannot see the glimmer of light when hope appears (Ruth 2:20).

Boaz, the Redeemer, exemplifies a faith which is strong, mature, and rooted in a lifetime of service coram Deo. Boaz instinctively recognizes Ruth’s faith; it is but a younger version of his own. Boaz possesses instinctive biblical reactions. He is challenged with a duty, and “he will not rest until he has concluded the matter this day” (Ruth 3:18). He knows the good he ought to do, and he goes and does it (Jas 4:17; Mt. 21:30).

It would not do to fail to mention three others briefly whose lack of faith is noted in this narrative. The first would have to be Elimelech. We are told very little about him. We only know he forsook the land in time of famine, in a time of history when Israel very much needed her righteous men to stand up for Jehovah. Was he a believer? We cannot say in either direction. We can only take his actions in the same light as those of the patriarchs Abraham and Isaac. Leaving the land for greener pastures was a sign of a lack of faith. (8)

Then there is the woman, Orpah. What a tragic figure! To be persuaded to follow her heart back to Moab. Was Naomi right to send her back? Perhaps she was. Orpah was almost surely not a believer. She would not be happy in Israel. Naomi may have sensed this in both of the women. Perhaps Ruth’s ultimate decision was made right there on the road. Her speech to Naomi (Ruth 1:16-17) is a poetry of resolution! “I hereby renounce everything. Moab holds no more attraction to me. None! I go forward, with you, and with Jehovah.” “We will not . . . follow Orpah as she goes back to her home and her gods. She is the first in the sad series of those, ‘not far from the kingdom of God,’ who needed but a little more resolution at the critical moment, and, for want of it, shut themselves out of the covenant, and sank back to a world which they had half renounced.” (9)

Last, there is the unnamed would-be go-el who hesitated to assume the burden of duty for mercy’s sake. The privilege of fathering for Elimelech, Naomi, Mahlon, and Chilion an heritage went, in the providence of God, to one more worthy of the name Redeemer. The other man is a footnote in history, a “Hey You,” a “so-and-so.” He was not one to take a risk, not one who understood the times, knowing not what was needful.

The Place of Ruth in the Progress of Revelation

How does Ruth fit into the macro-scheme of biblical truth? How does it relate forward and backward? Little new material is introduced in Ruth. Perhaps, even more clearly than in Judges, we see “real life” in the theocratic, pre-monarchical state. But there is no prophecy. There is no extraordinary events or persons on the surface. Below the surface, and above in the spiritual arena there are wonderful things happening, and that is Ruth’s “contribution” to the Progress of Revelation. We see the amazing Jehovah God at work in people’s lives in an every-day setting, amidst the trials and vicissitudes of life. We are encouraged, or we should be, that for better or ill (and always working out in our best interest--Rom. 8:28) God’s sure hand is guiding and directing, never faltering or failing.

And what is developed? Where is the thematic impetus pointing? We will most likely find that force in a messianic and soteric font, and we are not disappointed. It is most clear in two places, in the Redeemer concept, and the missions concept. First, missions. Israel had a special role to play in the world. She was to shine as a light to the Gentiles (Deut. 4:6-8). Awestruck by the display of righteousness, the nations would stream to Israel, as the queen of Sheba did and give glory to God. And what a blessing, then, an Israelite would be, traveling here and there in the world, shining that light before men, a holy ambassador of that light in Israel.

For this reason let us not short-change the faith of Naomi. It was the instrument of converting Ruth. “The household of Elimelech emigrated to Moab in a famine, and, whether they were right of wrong, they were there among the heathens as Jehovah worshippers. They were meant to be missionaries, and, in Ruth’s case, the purpose was fulfilled. She became the ‘first-fruits of the Gentiles’; and one aim of the book, no doubt, is to show how the believing Gentile was to be incorporated into Israel.” (10) How appropriate then, as Israel prepares to “take its place” as a kingdom of righteousness among the kingdoms of the world, that this message of inclusion and invitation should go forth! Noel Weeks points out that king David, descendant of the Moabitess, was surrounded by Gentile attendants. (11) And in the progressive apostasy of the nation, we see an increasing number of explicit promises regarding the graciousness of God to the Gentiles, and a widening of the door unto salvation (e.g. Is. 56:3-7).

It is just there, in those days of disaster--of being sold away by an angry Jehovah, that the language of redemption begins to come through quite powerfully. “Is my arm shortened at all that it cannot redeem? Or have I no power to deliver?” (Is. 50:2). “Their Redeemer is strong; . . . He shall vigorously plead their case” (Jer. 50:34). “All flesh will know that I, Jehovah, am your Savior And your Redeemer” (Is. 49:26). God shows himself to be a Redeemer to his own people. Even as he redeemed them from out of the hand of the Egyptians, he will do it again from Babylon's choking grasp.

The theme, therefore, of Redemption comes through powerfully in the book of Ruth. It is the basis for all the action. The transaction at the gate is the climax of the story. Boaz is the hero of the story. When he publicly announces that he is buying the field of Naomi, he is making a promise to care for her. This is the same thing the unnamed kinsman offers, but with Boaz, it is merely an addendum. His primary offer is his second declaration, and is both more sweeping and more worthy. He declares that he will “buy” Ruth the Moabitess and preserve the name of Elimelech. This fact cannot be emphasized enough: Boaz is not bound to do this deed. He voluntarily seeks the responsibility. (12) He takes all the risks. He gives up his rights.

The fact that his son is the grandfather of David, of whom God promises the Messianic King, ties this proto-Redeemer to our soul-Redeemer. Jesus heard our humble cries. Jesus voluntarily condescended to take our sin-debt upon himself and satisfy all indemnities against us. He took the risk--the punishment--of a holy and divine justice which we could not bear up under. He gave up his heavenly prerogatives for a time and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth (Ps. 8:4-6; Jn. 1:10-14; I Jn 1:1-2; Hb. 2:10-18; Phil. 2:5-11). “Just as the redeemer Boaz preserved the name and place of Elimelech in Israel, the Christ restores the names of His own for all time and gives them an eternal inheritance. The grace he shows them, together with all that they now receive on earth, is a guarantee of their eternal portion and a prophecy pointing ahead to it.” (13)

Jesus is the total realization of the kinsman-redeemer ideal. Where Boaz shines like a star in Israel, Jesus shines brighter than the sun in all its strength. He is the perfect Redeemer, he, the God-man, has saved us--Moabites and Israelites alike--who come to him on the threshing floor, before the hour of beating and burning, that we might hear these words in our hearts, “Blessed are you of the Lord. . . . Do not fear. I will do for you all that you request.”
End notes

(1) Gerhard Hasel, Old Testament Biblical Theology: basic issues in the current debate, 4th ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), passim.
(2) Ibid., 47-60.
(3) This is certainly plain to expositors at least as far back as 1685, Matthew Poole, A Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 1, Genesis-Job (Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth, 1962), 507. Leon Morris disagrees, Ruth: an introduction and commentary, Tyndale OT Commentaries (Downers Grove, Il.: Inter-Varsity, 1968), 242.
(4) This, on the other hand, Morris believes to be central. Ibid. Also John J. Davis, Conquest and Crisis: studies in Joshua, Judges, and Ruth (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1969), 164.
(5) 23 occurrences of the Heb. ga’-al. Source: F. B. Huey, Jr., Ruth, Expositors Bible Commentary, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 513.
(6) Roy Hession, Our Nearest Kinsman: the message of redemption and revival in the book of Ruth (Fort Washington, Pa.: Christian Literature Crusade, 1976), 2.
(7) Kirsten Nielsen suggests that Ruth brazenly bares herself to Boaz, a move savoring of seduction and manipulation. It also turns Ruth’s selfless act on Naomi’s behalf into a self-serving act that would disgrace Naomi (if this commentator didn’t have Naomi putting Ruth up to it in the first place!) Kirsten Nielsen, Ruth: a commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997), 66ff.
In contrast, Edward F. Campbell, Jr. indicates, in no uncertain terms, that the tale only flies true if honor is carried through in everything. Ruth, The Anchor Bible (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1975), 132, 137.
(8) S. G. De Graaf, Promise and Deliverance, vol. 2, The Failure of Israel’s Theocracy, trans. H. Evan Runner and Elizabeth Wichers Runner (St. Catherines, Ontario: Paideia, 1978), 58.
(9) Ibid., 260.
(10) Alexander Maclaren, The Books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, and First Book of Samuel (New York: A. C, Armstrong & Son, 1907), 265.
(11) Noel Weeks, Gateway to the Old Testament (Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 1995), 36
(12) Hession, 27.
(13) De Graaf, 63
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